For University Photographer Joseph Labolito, being on Main Campus feels just like home.
“I still live in the same zip code,” Labolito said. “One of the reasons I like Temple so much is because I feel like I’m a part of the city here, it’s very comfortable.”
Many of the photographs that have been seen on brochures and school sports’ advertisements, as well as the recent Temple Made campaign, have most likely been snapped by Labolito. With more than 30 years of capturing the events and spirit of Temple, Labolito has been able to preserve precious moments of college.
The Temple News: When was the first time you knew you wanted to be a photographer, and how did you get started on that path to your career?
Joseph Labolito: I had an uncle who was what I guess you could call an advanced amateur and he got me interested in it, and then in high school I worked for the yearbook, which in a lot of ways is similar to what I do now – just on a much grander scale. From there I went to Philadelphia College of Art that I jokingly refer to as “the other school” on Broad Street. There, I had some really cool teachers that showed me images that I hadn’t seen before, that I’d never had access to. You guys now have access to images all over the place – they just keep flowing at you. I don’t want to say it wasn’t like that, but they were a little more precious and you had to go get them, they didn’t come to you. There was one picture, an Irving Penn photograph of a bunch of Hell’s Angels from 1969 or 1970, just an incredible photograph. It tied together studio techniques and this really perfect control of the medium with reality. Here’s these bikers that just threw themselves in the studio. It was a great picture and I still remember it to this day that I looked at it and said, “You know, I could do that.” That’s where it started.
TTN: How did you join the Temple community as a photographer, and how has this experience been for you so far?
JL: Oddly enough, I was doing some documentary work for the City of Philadelphia. The Free Library has always collected my work. I included one of those images from a Ninth Street documentary. It turns out the boss of the boss that was hiring me liked the restaurant that I had photographed. That Saturday he went down to the sandwich shop and they had taped my archival selenium toned image right to their greasy wall. And he said to the owner, “That guy that took that picture that came in here, what did you think of him?” Now, not for nothing, but I’m an Italian guy, I was in the middle of the Italian Market, in a small sandwich shop. I was right in my element there. “Oh, nice kid, nice kid,” [the owner said], and that Monday he hired me. And I still joke around that it was a pork sandwich that got me hired. Now, granted, did I always make those documentary photographs? Yeah. And [then I] started looking back at the Hell’s Angels picture. Being at Temple, I worked for…Peter Liacouras. The guy was just an incredible guy. I mean, he had the vision of what this place could be. The opportunities and the variety that I’ve been exposed to even working here – and by all accounts I’m an educated person – but I never would have had this level of diversity, just from arts to sciences to athletics to real estate to politicians and everything in between. Really, it’s been great for me. I’ve had a ball.
TTN: You recently shot photos for the Temple Made campaign. What does this campaign mean to you, and how did you go about capturing the spirit of the campaign through your photos?
JL: Obviously there’s a lot more people involved in that than me, for sure. I think that my part of it was making photographs of what started as the Cherry Crusade kids. And if you think about it, in some ways it goes back to the Irving Penn photograph that I keep referencing. There’s that realism, but yet you still have a controlled studio where you’re really trying to work the medium at a certain level. And that was really attractive to me.
TTN: What has been the most challenging assignment for you to do (either at Temple or elsewhere) and what effect did it have on you as a professional photographer and/or person?
JL: For me, it’s never been one assignment, like one assignment defines you. I’ve been at this for 35 years. For me, it’s always been trying to keep the bar up there, keep working at a certain level. I always surrounded myself with people that really knew what they were doing. I was always chasing that. So for me, that’s had some effect on how I work here. I don’t want to be the in-house guy at Temple. Even though that’s what I am, that’s not the way I think. I want to be grander than that. The last thing I want to do is make pictures that are formula, if you will. If I start taking the same picture over and over again, I’d go crazy. In a job like this you’d go crazy because you do the same assignments every year. I want to try to do something completely different than the year before, or the last time I took a picture. So that’s the hardest part, it’s not one assignment, its longevity and keeping the bar high. You set your own bar.
Ndidi Obasi can be reached at email@example.com.